Commentary Magazine

Is Police Brutality the Problem?

Item: On July 20, 1992, Sergeant Peter Viola, and four other New York City police officers, were summoned to the home of Annie Dodds, a politically prominent black woman in Brooklyn, to settle a domestic dispute. It was one of those routinely dangerous, noncriminal confrontations that the police have learned to abhor.

Mrs. Dodds’s two sons, Harold Dodds, 34, and Tyrese Daniels, 28, were engaged in a violent argument. Although the police could not then know it, both brothers had extensive criminal records. Daniels in particular had been charged several times with assaulting police officers.

As the five cops worked patiently to soothe tempers, Daniels suddenly turned on his brother and hit him over the head with a metal pipe he had been brandishing. In the ensuing melee, all five cops were injured, one suffering a fractured shoulder. Mrs. Dodds also suffered a few scratches. Nevertheless, she went to the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, and complained of Sergeant Viola’s behavior. Viola was subsequently charged with felonious assault and is now awaiting trial.



Item: In January 1992, Scott Baldwin, a 210-pound running back at the University of Nebraska, underwent a “psychotic episode,” jumping out of a friend’s car and running naked through the streets of Omaha. Coming across a woman walking her dog, Baldwin smashed her head into a parked car, nearly killing her. He was charged with assault, but acquitted by reason of insanity.

The coach of the Nebraska football team, Tom Osborne, then took Baldwin into his home for several months. But on September 5, the evening of Nebraska’s first game of the season, Baldwin again turned up in Omaha, this time trying to break through the glass door of a stranger’s apartment. Two female police officers were dispatched to the scene. When they tried to handcuff Bald win, he wrestled one to the ground and attempted to grab her gun. The other officer drew her gun, held it to Baldwin’s head, and threatened him. When Baldwin kept fighting, she lowered the gun and shot him in the ribs, paralyzing him for life.

State Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, Nebraska’s only black legislator, blamed the police for sending two women to the scene and called the shooting “avoidable and therefore unjustified.”



Item: On October 7, 1992, Jerry Haaf, a 30-year veteran of the Minneapolis police department assigned to traffic duty, stopped at a pizza shop at 2 A.M. for a cup of coffee. While he was sitting at a table filling out reports, two young black males, in full view of several witnesses, walked up behind him and shot him through the heart. Despite an episode like this, and despite a general rise in crime and gang violence, Minneapolis’s liberal city administration continues to insist that police behavior is the city’s major problem. Says Mayor Donald Fraser: “I’ve never met a black family in Minneapolis that hadn’t been abused by the police.”



Item: On September 16, 1992, three off-duty New York City police officers became embroiled in an argument with 18-year-old Ywanus Mohamed as they were entering a subway station. During the argument, Mohamed pulled a box-cutting razor knife and slashed officer John Coughlin in the face, cutting him so badly he nearly died. The wounds required 500 stitches. Officers Thomas Cea and Patrick O’Neill subdued Mohamed, but after they had him handcuffed they allegedly continued punching him and broke his jaw. Mohamed, and Officers Cea and O’Neill, have all equally been charged with felony assault.



Item: Again in New York City, a riot erupted and the entire city spent the summer of 1992 on edge after an undercover police officer named Michael O’Keefe killed 23-year-old Kiko Garcia, a suspected drug dealer, in a street confrontation in Washington Heights. A grand jury eventually exonerated the officer, but Mayor David Dinkins used the occasion to push for the removal of the remaining six police officials from the city’s twelve-member police-review board, and to turn it into a completely civilian body.



Item: And again in Brooklyn, on August 19, 1991, in the Crown Heights section, a young Orthodox Jew named Yankel Rosenbaum was set upon by a mob of black teenagers yelling “Get the Jew.” One of them stabbed him, and before he died he identified his killer as Lemrick Nelson, Jr. The police also found a knife in Nelson’s possession with blood stains on it that matched Rosenbaum’s, and two detectives testified that Nelson had confessed. But on October 30, 1991, in a verdict that seemed to many a mirror image of the Rodney King case, the jury (made up of six blacks, four Hispanics, and two whites) acquitted Nelson of all charges. Evidently the reason was that the jurors did not believe the testimony of the police officers on the scene and concluded that they had framed Nelson.1 The New York Times, which had scarcely been able to contain its outrage over the white and Hispanic jury that had acquitted the police officers in the Rodney King case, now blamed not the jury but the police department—for the crime of having “lost all credibility with the neighborhoods it serves.” For good measure, the Times also attacked the policemen’s union for having “forfeited public faith” through its “callous arrogance.” And the moral it drew from the occasion was that the city needed “a more independent board to review complaints of police misconduct.”



In Advancing the bizarre suggestion that the police rather than the criminals are the real problem confronting us, and that the solution therefore lies in civilian oversight, Mayor Dinkins, District Attorney Hynes, Senator Chambers, Mayor Fraser, the New York Times, and the many other politicians and media pundits who agree with them, have a good deal of support from the academic world. For example, according to David Bayley, professor of criminology at SUNY Albany, and the leading American authority on foreign police forces,

We’re way behind the rest of the English-speaking world on this issue. England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all have strong systems. The best civilian-review board in North America is in Ontario. Their police department has completely lost sovereignty with respect to internal punishments.

Yet that did not prevent Toronto from erupting in riots last June when a 22-year-old black youth was shot to death by an undercover police officer. Nor is there any evidence that civilian-review boards do any better in this country in defusing the tensions between minority communities and the police.

Sam Walker, professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska, who specializes in civilian-review boards, has just completed a survey in which he found that 35 of the nation’s largest cities now have such boards. Walker argues that they act as an outlet to deflect police-civilian confrontations and prevent violence and frustration from building up within poor and minority communities:

The experience is that when the procedure for filing complaints is made more open to the public, the number of complaints rises. San Francisco has a very open system and has lots of complaints, while Los Angeles has no complaint procedure and is not even talking about one. San Francisco also didn’t have any riots. The Mayor of Omaha recently changed the system so that complaints could be filed at city hall rather than at the police stations. The number of complaints immediately doubled. In my judgment, the number of complaints a city has about police brutality is a reflection of public confidence in the police.

Yet public opinion, led by local anti-police activists, is likely to conclude the opposite. First, the number of complaints filed is seen as evidence that police brutality is “widespread.” Second, since only a very small number of complaints ever lead to disciplinary action (just as a very small number of criminal complaints ever lead to jail sentences), the vast number that fall apart or are not resolved will usually be taken as proof that “the system isn’t working.”

The truth, however, is that most complaints are either frivolous or unjustified. This is borne out by the experience of the old New York City Board, which the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonpartisan organization, found to be prejudiced neither for nor against civilians or police officers.

In 1990, the Board’s annual report showed a total of 2,376 complaints for “excessive force,” 1,140 for “abuse of authority,” 1,618 for “discourtesy,” and 420 for “ethnic slurs.” Among the 2,376 complaints for excessive force (presumably the most serious charge), injuries were documented in 267 cases. These involved 71 bruises, 92 lacerations requiring stitches, 30 fractures, 22 swellings, and 41 “other.” In the 2,286 cases that were pursued, 566 were dropped because the complainant became uncooperative, 234 were dropped because the complainant withdrew the charge, and 1,405 were closed with less than full investigation, usually because the complainants became unavailable. Only 81 cases resulted in a finding against the policeman.

To understand why there is such an overload of frivolous cases, it is first necessary to realize that the vast majority of complaints do not involve serious charges. In 80 percent of the New York cases, the complainant did not even seek punishment or further investigation, but only wanted to confront the officer.

Furthermore, the serious complaints are often the work of criminals who are seeking some leverage in the charges against them. “They file a complaint as soon as they are arrested and hope to use it as a trade-off in bargaining their case,” says Robert M. Morgenthau, the district attorney of Manhattan. Drug dealers in particular have become adept at using the complaint system as a bargaining tool. In the 34th precinct (Washington Heights), which led all New York City precincts for homicides in 1991, arresting officers now routinely hand drug suspects the civilian-complaint form as an ironic gesture in “community relations.”

When Professor Walker was asked to point to a system that works, he replied:

That’s a question I’ve been asked a hundred times and I don’t know the answer. I was talking to a reporter from the Detroit News and he told me that Detroit has a strong civilian-review board and few complaints about police brutality. Maybe the system works there. I’m going to have to go up and see.

Detroit, of course, is a city where, as one columnist wrote recently, “the wheels have fallen off Western civilization.”



There are people who contend that to downgrade the problem of police brutality is to adopt a white perspective and to manifest insensitivity, or worse, to the black condition. No doubt there is some truth to this charge. After all, as Mayor Fraser points out, law-abiding blacks are more likely to be harassed by cops than are their white counterparts, so that for the former, police misconduct is indeed something to worry about. But a cursory glance at the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports makes it clear why focusing on police misbehavior is so perversely misplaced an emphasis.

Since 1986, the incidence of all crimes per 100,000 population is only up 6 percent, and some property crimes (pocket-pickings, purse-snatchings, and motor-vehicle accessory theft) have actually shown a slight decline. But these small decreases in property crimes have been more than offset by a huge increase in personal and violent crimes.

Thus, the rate of violent crime is up 29 percent overall and 24 percent in per-capita terms. Murder rates are up 23 percent and 18 percent per capita. Robbery rates have risen 33 percent in real terms and 28 percent in per-capita terms. This includes an absolute increase of 50 percent for bank robberies, 38 percent for street robberies, 27 percent for convenience-store robberies, 16 percent for residential robberies, and 11 percent for gas-station robberies. Aggravated assault is also up 28 percent in absolute terms and 23 percent per capita.

Does all this mean that America is becoming a far more violent society? Not entirely. What is unique about this crime wave is that it has been confined almost completely to black juveniles. The lines for “white” and “other” (Hispanic, Oriental, American Indian, etc.) are almost perfectly flat over the same period. But the arrest rates for blacks has gone nearly vertical.

What is more, violent blacks are getting younger and younger. In an analysis of the Uniform Crime Reports, James Alan Fox, dean of the Northeastern University College of Criminal Justice, found that crime rates were up the steepest for the youngest groups. Arrest rates for murder climbed 121 percent for 17-year-olds, 158 percent for 16-year-olds, and 217 percent for 15-year-olds. Even 12-year-olds were up 100 percent.

This unprecedented crime wave among young blacks has hit the cities hardest. Minneapolis, for example, has 40 percent of Minnesota’s crime, even though it has only 8 percent of the state’s population. In New York, 85 percent of the state’s record 2,200 crimes in 1990 were in New York City (less than half the state’s population). And within New York City, 70 percent of the murders were concentrated in a few neighborhoods—Washington Heights, Harlem, East Harlem, the South Bronx, East New York, and Bedford Stuyvesant. Brooklyn’s 75th precinct (East New York), a drug-infested wasteland with a population of 160,000, had more murders than Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany combined (total population 880,000).

The reasons for the upsurge in inner-city violence are by now familiar. The most obvious is the introduction of crack cocaine, which has transformed drug addiction from a messy, disease-ridden, needle-passing subculture to a cleaner, inhaling-based “mainstream” habit among major portions of the underclass population. Once again, the arrest statistics reflect this change. While juvenile arrests for marijuana and other drugs are down or level since 1985, arrests for cocaine have soared during the same period. And once again, this increase has been concentrated entirely among blacks.

Beyond that, there is the disintegration of normal social life in many black ghettos. What is most striking is the loss of the mediating institutions of society—the churches, stores, schools, voluntary organizations, commercial activities, and ordinary street life that once formed a buffer between criminals and law-abiding citizens. On the streets surrounding the Robert Taylor Homes, a dreaded housing project on the South Side of Chicago, there is little sign of life except for a few graffiti-scarred playgrounds and scattered rows of desolate—though still inhabited—homes. Among the ruined buildings are an abandoned factory and a burned-out YMCA. Over nearly twenty square blocks, the only commercial advertising is a ubiquitous billboard on the back of bus-stop benches, advertising: “Beepers. Call 633-9610.” Beepers, of course, are the standard equipment of the drug trade.



Most forbidding of all, however, is the collapse of history’s oldest bulwark against crime and violent behavior—the nuclear family.

The majority of black males in ghetto areas no longer have any real adult role to play, either at home or in society. Their role as breadwinner—however poorly it may have been played in the past—has now been usurped by the welfare system. In projects like the Robert Taylor Homes, where more than 90 percent of the households involve only women and children, adult men have all but disappeared.

Over half of all black children born in this country are now born to unwed mothers, and in many poor areas, the figure exceeds 80 percent. Some of these women may supplement their welfare grant with some kind of furtive arrangement with a new man. But family units built around stable marriages are essentially unknown.

Nationwide, 25 percent of black men between the ages of 15 and 35 are entangled in the criminal-justice system—as prison inmates, defendants, parolees, or probationers. In cities like Washington, the number approaches 40 percent. Homicide is now the most common cause of death for black men between the ages of 20 and 35, and one in every 22 black men can expect to be murdered.

From the time they reach physical maturity until the time they disappear into the netherworld of dereliction and homelessness, these young black men lead lives of stupefying violence. In this unrelenting free-for-all, there are no qualms about killing someone for a pair of sneakers or sunglasses or because the other person is wearing the wrong colors or looks the wrong way. Listen to the voices of Sidewinder and Bopete, two fourteen-year-olds, as recorded in a California youth-detention center by Lèon Bing for her chronicle of Los Angeles gang life, Do or Die:

[Bopete:] “Sometimes I think about not goin’ back to bangin’ when I get outta here. I play in sports a lot here, and I. . . .”

Sidewinder’s laugh interrupts. “Sound like a regular ol’ teenager, don’t he? I sound like that, too, after the drive-by. I got shot twice in the leg, ‘cause they was shootin’ at the car, and when that happen I didn’t want to bang no more, either. Makin’ promises to God, all like that. But when it heal up. . . .” He is silent for a moment; maybe he’s thinking about a freedom he won’t taste for a while. Then, “I tell you somethin’—I don’t feel connected to any other kids in this city or in this country or in this world. I only feel comfortable in my ‘hood. That’s the only thing I’m connected to, that’s my family. One big family—that’s about it.”

“In my ‘hood, in the Jungle, it ain’t like a gang. It’s more like a nation, everybody all together as one. Other kids, as long as they ain’t my enemies, I can be cool with ’em.” Bopete lapses into silence. “I’ll tell you, though—if I didn’t have no worst enemy to fight with, I’d probably find somebody.”

“Ye-eeeeeeeh,” Sidewinder picks it up. “I’d find somebody. ‘Cause if they ain’t nobody to fight, it ain’t no gangs. It ain’t no life. I don’t know . . . it ain’t no. . . .”

“It ain’t no fun.”

“Yeah! Ain’t no fun just sittin’ there. Anybody can just sit around, just drink, smoke a little Thai. But that ain’t fun like shootin’ guns and stabbin’ people. That’s fun.”

It might seem that nothing more could be piled atop this disintegrating social scene to make a policeman’s life more difficult and dangerous. But something has been: the proliferation of illegal guns, particularly automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Says Hubert Williams, head of the Police Foundation:

There’s a strong feeling among the departments around the country that we’re being outgunned in our own neighborhoods. You can see it in the number of high-power, high-tech weapons confiscated off the streets. I mean, add it up. There are only about 70 patrolmen in every precinct and each one has one gun. How many guns are there in the neighborhoods we’re patrolling?

The speed and sophistication of the weapons in the hands of today’s drug dealers have made the rap singer Ice Cube’s description of South Central Los Angeles—“the concrete Vietnam”—no exaggeration. According to Jack Killorin, of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco:

The kind of semi-automatic weapons in the hands of criminals today means even one bad guy can do a devastating amount of damage. It’s not necessarily the power of the guns—although certainly that makes a difference. But many criminals are now armed with semi-automatic weapons that can literally fill the air with bullets. Not only are guns faster and more powerful, but there’s an almost psychopathic willingness to use them.

In 1981, American gunmakers manufactured 1.7 million revolvers and 837,000 semi-automatic pistols. In 1991, the ratio was completely reversed—1.3 million semi-automatics to 456,000 revolvers. Standard revolvers, carried by most police officers, fire six shots and then require reloading, while semi-automatic pistols usually contain a clip of 16-24 bullets. “It’s during that reloading time, when the first round of bullets runs out, that a lot of officers are killed,” says Killorin.

Nevertheless, in New York City, Mayor Dinkins—against the urging of the FBI—has personally prevented the police from switching to semiautomatic 9-mm. weapons, even though such weapons are now carried by his own bodyguards.



What can we expect the police to do under these circumstances?

In 1968, James Q. Wilson examined the problem in his classic book, The Varieties of Police Behavior. In that long-lost era, when the principal problems of police work involved dealing with drunks and breaking up fights at parties, Wilson discovered three styles of police action, which he termed the “watchman,” the “legalistic,” and the “service.”

The “watchman,” or “order-maintenance” style, common in cities with old political machines, tended to concentrate on maintaining order, giving individual patrolmen a lot of latitude to enforce the law as they saw fit. Large concentrations of gambling and prostitution were usually tolerated—often in black neighborhoods—as long as they did not offend the “respectable” people of the town.

The “legalistic” departments had usually been through some kind of reform period. Police stuck by the letter of the law and were impeccable about corruption. They wrote speeding tickets on an equal basis for city councilmen and black ghetto residents alike. The police force had usually been put out of the reach of politics and a strict civil-service or merit system prevailed.

The “service” style was a kind of middle ground, found mostly in the suburbs. The police were not “pro-active,” but extremely conscious of the desires of their constituents. The law was upheld in a neutral way, but the police were unobtrusive about it as well. Although this style worked well in homogeneous suburbs, Wilson doubted that it could serve as a model in heterogeneous urban populations.

Regrettably enough, Wilson discovered that both the laissez-faire order-maintenance style and the reform-minded legalistic style (which was in many ways its opposite) both aroused resentment in black communities:

Order maintenance means managing conflict, and conflict implies disagreeing over what should be done, how, and to whom. Conflict is found in all social strata and thus in all strata there will be resentment, often justified, against particular police interventions (or their absence), but in lower-class areas conflict and disorder will be especially common and thus such resentment will be especially keen. It is hardly surprising that polls show young lower-income Negro males as being deeply distrustful of and bitter about the police; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that race is the decisive factor.

But when minimal order-maintenance (which had been the rule in the South) gave way to a stricter effort to impose middle-class standards on the entire community, the resentment remained. In Wilson’s words:

One reason for the increasing complaints of “police harassment” may be that, in the large cities, Negroes are being brought under a single standard of justice; one reason for the complaints of discrimination may be that this process is proceeding unevenly and imperfectly. As the populations of our large cities become, through continued migration, more heavily Negro, more heavily lower-income, and more youthful, we can expect these complaints to increase in number and frequency, especially if, as seems likely, organizations competing for leadership in the central cities continue to seek out such issues in order to attract followers.

Having so accurately foreseen what was coming, Wilson (in collaboration with George Kelling) later developed the well-known “broken-windows” hypothesis, which has served as the basis of the “neighborhood-policing” movement. Wilson and Kelling decided that the watchman style had been correct in one respect—order maintenance does matter. “A broken window that remains broken is a signal that no one cares and an invitation for more broken windows,” they wrote. Or, as a resident of Washington Heights put it during the tensions last summer:

I know the police are never going to clean up the drug problem in this neighborhood because they can’t even deal with the problem of double-parked cars.

Wilson and Kelling’s neighborhood policing is now the basis of a reform movement that is being instituted all over the country—even in places where it does not seem entirely appropriate. Foot patrolmen are now walking the beats of South-Central Los Angeles, trying to win the trust of the community—even though in such neighborhoods they may be the only people around not traveling by car.



But whether or not neighborhood policing will do any good, one thing remains clear: to concentrate on police “harassment” and “brutality” is to divert attention from the real problem that faces our society, which is the terrible upsurge of violent crime over the past five years. Worse yet, this focus creates a climate and leads to policies which can only have the effect of making it harder for the police to do their job, and perhaps also of making them less willing to do it.

In Los Angeles last May, the police department hesitated to mount a show of force when the Rodney King verdict was handed down because officials feared they would be blamed for igniting violence. “It would have been seen as provocative,” said Willie Williams, who succeeded Daryl Gates as L.A. police chief in June. As it was, there were many reports of police passivity in the face of looting and arson, and order was not restored until three days later when 9,000 National Guardsmen and federal troops hit the streets.

In Minneapolis (which not only has a civilian-review board but also an organization in which members of the major drug gangs work together with the police in trying to establish domestic tranquility), the cops are feeling anxious and inhibited. Says Jerry Larson, a veteran detective and vice president of the city’s Police Federation (the policemen’s union):

The mayor told us for years that gangs here wouldn’t be a problem. We warned him they would and now we’ve got a problem. You can’t handle these gangs without getting pro-active and having all this constant criticism from the political establishment makes us real leery about doing our jobs. It’ll be like New York, where the police just drive by things. I know some New York coppers and they say, “The hell with it. If those people aren’t killing each other, we’re not getting out of our cars.”

In New York City itself, as though to confirm Larson’s observation, Officer Todd Jamison declared in responding to charges of police brutality after an arrest that left one of his colleagues injured: “There are certain things where we have the power of discretion, we can turn our heads and say, why get involved?” An even more striking comment was made by Officer O’Keefe. When asked why he had not drawn his gun sooner in his mortal struggle with Garcia in Washington Heights, O’Keefe replied: “The truth is, in the current climate, a cop is more worried about getting in trouble than getting killed.”

A poignant incident that occurred in Chicago drives the point home. When the Chicago Bulls won the National Basketball Association championship in June 1992, thousands of the city’s residents—nearly all of them black—celebrated by rampaging through the downtown stores, breaking windows, looting, and turning over parked cars. (The New York Times reported that, of the 100 people injured during the riots, 94 were police officers.) Picking up a pattern which had been established in the Los Angeles riot a month before, the mobs singled out Korean-owned businesses for attack. Park Jung, the 32-year-old owner of a men’s clothing store on the West Side, found more than 100 people trying to break through his storefront. When he appealed for help to several police officers who were standing idly by, they refused, advising him to “take care of your life and go home.” He left and his store was destroyed.

“What else could I do?” Mr. Park said. “I hate America. I’m going back to Korea.”

But those of us who are staying here in America will have greater and greater cause to rue the fact that the police are being morally disarmed and demoralized by a climate of opinion that seems to regard them as a bigger threat to society than the criminals they have to confront—and by whom they are being increasingly outgunned. For many years, criminologists have tried to dismiss swings in the crime rate with the bland assertion that they represent shifts in the crime-prone population of young males. But the current outburst has occurred during a trough in the population cycle. As Dean Fox points out:

What we’ve seen in the past few years is nothing compared with what we’ll see in the next decade and on into the next century. Right now, we have the fewest 18-to-24-year-olds we’ve had since 1965, but next year they will start to go back up.

In other words, the worst is yet to come, and if the police continue to be incapacitated by a fixation on their occasional misbehavior, we—and most especially the young blacks among us—will have even less protection against violent crime in the future than we do today.


1 For a fuller discussion of what happened in Crown Heights, see the article by Philip Gourevitch, beginning on p. 29.—Ed.

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